Written by Callum Walker
You hear the name ‘Paris St Germain’ and instantly you think of football. But, back in Super League’s first-ever season in 1996 – and again in 1997 – PSG were given a chance to step onto the biggest stage in Rugby League history.
That project in the heart of France survived barely two years before a highly-publicized and controversial scandal led to a rapid downfall and eventually, dissolution, of the Rugby League branch of the sporting giant Paris St Germain.
Despite its brief existence, the club created an important legacy that is still being felt today.
Creation and controversy
It was the 23rd of December, 1993, and whilst Rugby League was gearing up for the Christmas period, the cogs where whirring in Paris. Led by club president and former Rugby Union player and coach, Jacques Fouroux, Paris St German Rugby League – or PSG RL for short – was founded.
And, in a move that prompted severe consequences for several clubs and the game overall, PSG were one of 12 teams given a starting berth in the inaugural Super League season in 1996.
The original First Division had 14 clubs. Now, everyone knows that 14 does not go into 12, meaning that some clubs would have to be cut. To make matters worse, PSG were joined by London Broncos – a side that had finished a mere fourth in the Second Division – in the top flight. That meant that teams finishing below tenth were axed from the new creation and made to join the second tier.
Featherstone Rovers, Hull, Wakefield Trinity and Widnes were the ones removed in incredibly harsh fashion whilst Keighley – who had just topped the Second Division and would have earned promotion – were also consigned to life outside the Super League.
Whilst Wakefield have since cemented their place in the top tier – after earning promotion in 1998 – for Featherstone and Keighley it was a bitter blow that neither have ever recovered from and one which their fans still resent. Widnes joined the Super League for 2002 after winning promotion in 2001 whilst for Hull it ultimately led to their financial meltdown and subsequent merger with Gateshead Thunder.
That merger effectively destroyed Rugby League in the North East, scars of which are just starting to be healed with the development of Newcastle Thunder.
Parisian walkways and its legacy
Club president Jacques Fouroux pre-selected 40 players from the French Championship to join the new experiment, before announcing the final list comprised of 26. Just over a third of this 26 included “foreign” players with Australians, New Zealanders, Samoans and even the first Polish player to ever play in Super League – Grzegorz Kacala – among those making history.
Aside from all the hostility in England, the anticipation in Paris and France in general was enormous. 1996 not only was a breakthrough year in modern Rugby League, but it also laid the foundations for modern French Rugby League too.
PSG were given the honour of hosting the first ever Super League game at the Stade Sebastien Charlety in March in front of nearly 18,000 eager onlookers. That was the largest attendance for a Rugby League fixture in France for 38 years and they were treated to an awesome spectacle as Paris triumphed over Sheffield Eagles, 30-24, ensuring the club’s Super League debut was one to remember.
With a French crowd on their feet for most of the game, a French coach at the helm in the shape of Michel Mazare and a side that boasted many French nationals, PSG’s entry into the top flight appeared vindicated. In essence, it was a revolutionary moment in the history of French Rugby League; there was an appetite, intrigue and a real possibility of making the controversial decision to give PSG a Super League spot, work.
The idea that a French side could be popular and enhance the Super League brand was therefore fomented. Perhaps, then, as the result of the original Paris project, the Catalans Dragons experiment was seen as much less of a gamble in 2006, particularly when considering the home base of Perpignan was already a breeding ground for Rugby League.
A European Super League, rather than just an English one, was a serious entity. The romanticism of a cold Parisian night contrasted superbly with the harsh environments of northern England, but it also planted the seed to what would become a warm evening in Perpignan.
Le Fantôme de l’Opéra
A wonderful start soon turned into a nightmare when reality began to haunt the concept. That opening round victory over Sheffield would be just one of three wins the French side managed to accrue in 1996, and, that initial excitement of interested Parisians began to dwindle too.
When just 500 spectators turned up for a home game against Salford, the Paris project appeared to be heading for disaster. Detached from the Rugby League heartland of the south, PSG failed to capitalize on the two wins and a draw from their opening five matches and a downward spiral ensued.
A 76-8 drubbing by Wigan set the ball rolling for an 11-game losing streak, but relegation was avoided by the narrowest of margins as Workington Town ended the season on just five points in comparison to PSG’s seven.
Things went from bad to worse at the end of the 1996 season too; the architect and club president of the Paris project – Jacques Fouroux – resigned from all responsibilities in September. With performances on the field doing little to inspire hope, the heart of the club had been seemingly ripped out, leaving little but despair.
Que sera sera
If PSG’s first season in Super League was filled with toil and trouble then their second was an entire witch’s poem. Regardless of Jacques Larose becoming the new club president, PSG suffered with financial issues.
An original budget had envisioned for 13 million francs; that was short by five million, resulting in a loss of French nationals, including head coach Michel Mazare. Australian Peter Mulholland – now Canberra Raiders’ recruitment manager – took over with just three French players and 22 from abroad making up the Paris squad. Just two of those – Deon Bird and Jason Sands – had been present for PSG’s inaugural Super League season in 1996.
Much like PSG’s first season, their second started in the same fashion – with victory over Sheffield once more, 18-4. That raised hopes, but eight straight defeats wiped out any positivity that had been fostered.
Mulholland was sacked despite beating bottom side Castleford, after just two wins in 11 games with ex-Great Britain international Andy Goodway taking the reins. That seemed to spur Paris on and, for the first time in their history, they registered consecutive victories in rounds 17 and 18 with table-topping Wigan and Halifax falling foul of the Parisian pilum.
PSG truly etched their name into folklore midway through the 1997 season when, in a “super-competition” created between both hemispheres – labelled the World Club Challenge – which included all Super League and then-named Australian Super League sides, PSG triumphed against the Western Reds, 24-0.
Yet that superb victory and the incredible 30-28 win over Wigan was all the Parisians had to cheer about in 1997. Finishing in 11th once more with just six wins, the French side were yet again saved by relegation by a team performing slightly worse – this time it was the Oldham Bears.
Au revoir, Paris
That shock victory over Wigan soon turned into shock at something far more long-lasting as, just two days later, PSG were rocked by a scandal. The Dabe brothers – administrators at the club – were locked in a gruelling battle with the Super League, who denounced some of the Paris players’ contracts to the French authorities.
Most of the players were Australians who, Super League claimed, possessed tourist visas instead of employment visas in order to avoid paying certain taxes in France. PSG Rugby League could go on no longer.
Despite the PSG board withdrawing the club from the “PSG RL” association to become Paris Rugby for their last five games and relocating to Narbonne in Bayonne – over 500 miles from Paris – the Rugby Football League (RFL) had had enough.
Just a week after Super League’s second season ended, the Paris club announced it was dissolving. With profitability running at an all-time low and an endless outpouring of money, crowds into the two to three thousand mark, and now a revelation that smeared the reputation of Super League – a competition that was still very much in its infancy – PSG RL simply could not continue. Jacques Fouroux’s dream was dead in the water.
Could it have worked and can it work?
Just imagine if the Paris project had worked and was still going today; would there be a Catalans Dragons fast-tracked to Super League? Would Toulouse Olympique also be enjoying success in the second tier of English Rugby League? Those questions cannot be answered, but what can categorically be stated is that PSG certainly planted the seed for those franchises to grow in the so-called “European” game in the late noughties.
That opening round extravaganza in March 1996 certainly outlined the French capital’s interest in the 13-man code, but perhaps both Super League and the Paris club were too much in their infancy for it to work. Super League was, itself, a brand-new concept as was the summer game.
With more stability behind the Super League after 25 years and one French side making waves in the top flight and another looking to join them in the near future, who’s to say a new Paris couldn’t rise from the ashes?